Big Loss For Big Red

A seemingly calm and relaxing Saturday afternoon nap was shattered with some truly horrible news. Chris Jones, Nebraska’s top CB, and my personal favorite defensive player is out 4-6 months with a bad knee injury. This is a major blow to the whole defensive unit. A unit who is already short on playmakers. Jones is a true ballhawk who was poised for a big fall before this setback. Jones’ absence leaves most of us scratching out head. This injury has a ripple effect on the defensive backfield, but it also poses an interesting question about Jones’ career path. It’s very possible we never see him in scarlet and cream again.

I’ve heard plenty of talk about moving Josh Kalu from Free Safety back to corner where he has played his 3 previous seasons in Lincoln. I could, potentially, get behind this. But there are a few factors. First, how do you feel about Eric Lee? Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams was quick to heap praise on Lee for his play this spring. If you feel good about Lee at that spot, lets see what he can do. Secondly, the eligibility of incoming recruit Elijah Blades is in jeapordy. Blades is still not in Lincoln and you have to wonder if he ever will be. Lets assume Blades does not qualify, who does NU for depth purposes? Dicaprio Bootle and Tony Butler are both young players who have yet to see action. Boaz Joseph has been a fixture on the 2-deep, but is light on experience. Are any of them ready for a role of any considerable size? If not, you really have to look hard at Kalu. Finally, how does Josh Kalu feel about it? I really dislike moving players repeatedly. Its not good for their development. Kalu has spent upwards of 6 months getting ready to play Free Safety in NU’s new 3-4 scheme. It is unfair to completely shift gears and expect him to play CB and not miss a beat. If he is alright with the switch, and you don’t feel good about the others, then do it. If he is even the least bit apprehensive, I keep him at Free Safety and get the youngsters ready to play.

This weekend on twitter, Chris Jones implied that he will beat the 4-6 month timetable. While I appreciate the attitude and enthusiasm Jones possesses, I don’t think its a good idea. This is his future we are talking about. He needs to do whatever it takes to get right in order to continue his career, whether it’s in Lincoln or in the NFL. I remember when Jerry Rice blew his knee out it 1997, rushed to get back, only to further injure it. I don’t want to see that happen with Jones. He needs to do what is best for him. There is some thought that he has a redshirt season to burn. So he sits out 2017, gets his knee in order, and comes back in 2018. If that is what is best for him, great. If he determines that going to the draft is his best path, fine. It is possible that Jones could rejoin the team after 4 months and be available for Penn State, Iowa, maybe Minnesota and the bowl game. Is that worth it for him? Again, I leave that up to him to decide. Personally, if I were him I would look long and hard at getting back to 100% and getting ready for workouts in preparation of the draft.

Let’s not mince words. This is a disastrous injury. One of the best players on this team is lost for  75% of the season, in all likelihood. That stinks. The hires of Bob Diaco and Donte Williams were roundly applauded by the Big Red faithful. Both bring serious moxy to the coaching staff. Well, the honeymoon is over for both of them. Diaco will more than likely have to adjust the way he calls defenses without a rock solid, lock down, playmaking corner on one side. Williams is charged with the task of getting youngsters ready to play, and in a hurry. What if there is another injury at that position? We have seen Williams recruit, but can he develop the talent on hand? If NU doesn’t have corners ready to play, Big 10 quarterbacks could have a field day. How much does that change the outlook of the 2017 season?

 

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4 Questions for Nebraska Football in 2017

Will A More Suitable Fit at QB = Greater Production and Efficiency?
For all the love that Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf showered upon Tommy Armstrong last year, it’s clear that he was not their ideal QB. Langsdorf’s offense tried to cater to Armstrong’s strengths, with some success, but overall the offense was inconsistent at best. Against Big 10 competition, the Nebraska offense ranked 11th in points per game, 9th in rushing, 8th in passing, and 12th in completion percentage. That will simply not do if this program wants to contend for anything other than the Taxslayer.com bowl. Incoming QB Tanner Lee has drawn a substantial amount of praise from those inside and outside the program. Many say he has a prototypical NFL size and arm strength. Whatever. Will his physical attributes make for a better Husker offense?  It is clear he is a better fit for the type of offense Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf like to run. That counts for something. How much remains to be seen. Tommy Armstrong struggled with reads, at times with accuracy and always with the short pass. He only completed 51% of his passes, for just 7.4 yards per attempt and less than a 2-1 TD to Int ratio. I don’t want to beat up on Tom. He was a warrior for this program. 2016 would have been awful without him. But going forward, at least statistically, there is plenty of room for improvement from that position. It is put up or shut up time, particularly for Langsdorf.  This offense needs to be both more consistent and more productive. If substantial improvement is not seen, perhaps its time to show Riley’s buddy Dan to the door.

 

Can Stan Morgan Become an All Big 10 Caliber Receiver?
The Nebraska offense lost a boatload of WR talent from its 2016 squad. Gone are Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly and all-timer Jordan Westercamp. Those 3 combined for 1,313 yards and 9 of NU’s 14 receiving TDs. Yikes!! Filling those shoes will be no easy task. Nebraska is incredibly thin at that position. What this offense needs is a certifiable stud on the outside. Someone who can cause opposing DCs to wet the bed preparing for the game with NU. Fortunately for Nebraska fans, there is a capable player on this roster. Stanley Morgan has the tools, the physical stature, and the moxy of an alpha male #1 WR. For all the good things you can say about Tommy Armstrong, he tended to lock onto his favorite receivers. For the better part of his first 2 seasons, that has not been Morgan. Rest assured Morgan will be getting plenty of targets this fall. He has to. This offense needs for him to come through and be the true thoroughbred that I feel he can be. Morgan caught 33 passes for 453 yards, and just 2 TDs last fall.  This offense may need him to double his catches and yards and triple his TDs. Provided he stays healthy, he will have every opportunity. Will he make the most of it and become the true playmaker this offense sorely needs? It sure would be nice.

Will This Offensive Line Continue to Be a Liability?
I’m going to be straight with you. The offensive line was a big part of the problem in 2016. The lack of a consistent running game was a big reason why NU struggled against top level competition. Consider that 6 times last year NU averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry. Specifically, the Huskers averaged just 3.2 ypc against Wyoming, 3.4 @Indiana, 2.9 in a beatdown to Iowa, and 2.2 in the bowl game. Thats right, 2.2 yards per carry against Tennessee!! Are you sick yet? Those numbers are enough to make anyone’s milk curdle. Overall, Nebraska ranked 9th in the league in run offense despite a substantial commitment and running QB. That’s not good enough. Believe it or not it could have been worse. I will say Tommy Armstrong’s allusiveness prevented both sacks and gained rushing yards. Too often he was the crutch that Danny Langsdorf leaned upon. That crutch will no longer be there. This line needs to stand on its own two feet. Push some folks around. Assert their will do some degree. Depth will, in theory, be improved. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh redshirted at least 3 players last year that will be on the 2 deep come September 2. That may not have been wise, but that train has long left the station. That’s a topic for another time. The fact is that this unit should have better depth this fall. But will that translate to more production/better protection. Tanner Lee will not be scrambling like Tommy Armstrong. They will need to protect him. Armstrong was as good as I’ve ever seen at alluding a rush.  Lee may not be a sack of potatoes, but he wont be evading a rush the way Tom did. Obviously, a solid running game would be beneficial. 152 yards on 44 attempts against your chief rival (Wisconsin) does not qualify. It’s reasonable to believe that NU’s, uh, experience should pay dividends in 17. That is true. But it is also true that a repeat performance will spell doom for this offense and most likely this team.

The Defense
Admittedly, this is a total cop out. This portion is a catch all for everything on one particular side of the ball. But its appropriate.  As of today we know absolutely nothing about this defense, beyond the roster. Bob Diaco has taken over and installed his versatile 3-4 scheme that was such a huge success at Notre Dame. This is a great hire. I applaud Mike Riley for making a change and going out and getting the top defensive mind available. Arkansas was hot for Diaco, but Riley (and the NU pocketbook) lured in a big fish. Beautiful!! Great news!! But we have no idea how NU’s current defensive roster will fare within the scheme. We have not seen any of these players in a 3-4. The roles and assignments are different all the way around. We do know that Chris Jones is pretty awesome. Aaron Williams is a ball hawk. Big Mick Stoltenberg is a load in the middle.  We know the players on hand. That’s about it. What we don’t know is how it will all come together. If Diaco comes in and works miracles, and this unit becomes a top unit in the Big 10, the ceiling for this season goes up dramatically. If this whole thing is a god damn dumpster fire, this team could struggle to win 6 games. The swing is that great. I personally don’t have a feel for this one way or the other. We saw absolutely nothing from the defense in the spring game. If you came up with something from that dog and pony show, it is a total fabrication of your imagination. The questions about this particular unit are plenty. Will this pass rush be able to generate consistent pressure? If so, from where? How will the defensive line will adjust to their new roles? How will Josh Kalu fare at Free Safety? Will this versatile defense be able to adjust to the vast array of offenses NU will see this fall? Let me make this plain. I trust Diaco. I really like this hire. He’s our guy. He is the kind of top shelf assistant all staff’s need. But as of today this defense as a whole is an enormous question. It could go to either extreme or anywhere in between. It’s that large of a variable. One that likely wont be fully answered until somewhere around Halloween.

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884